The Eastern Washington Eagles will travel the 67 miles south to Pullman on Saturday to face the Washington State Cougars in Mike Leach's Martin Stadium debut. The EWU defense will have the task of stopping Leach's Air Raid offense and containing Cougar wide receiver Marquess Wilson.
The Eagles' 2011 season was comparable to their season-opening opponent, the Washington Huskies, in that an excellent offense was nearly undone by a porous defense. EWU finished 101st out of 122 FCS teams in total yards allowed per game, 110th in rushing yards allowed per game, 87th in scoring defense, and 84th in passing efficiency defense.
The defense did play well in their season-opener. The Vandals were held to just 4.0 yards per play and turned the ball over twice.
EWU plays a 4-3 base defense that returns seven starters from a year ago. They were decent at putting pressure on the quarterback, as the Eags tied for 31st in sacks per game. When the line is doing their job breaking through the pass protection, it's natural to point the blame finger at the backfield when a team is so poorly rated in passing efficiency defense. And that is exactly what we are doing here.
Eastern returns three of their starters from 2011 in the secondary, with Alden Gibbs the only departing senior. The defensive backfield combined for just six interceptions last year, with three of those coming from players no longer in the program.
Jeff Minnerly is the leader unit's leader at safety, posting the most solo tackles on the team a year ago. He totaled 77 tackles, five of which came for a loss. Minnerly tallied four tackles and a pass breakup in the victory over Idaho.
Allen Brown is the other safety. He won't come up to defend the run game as much as Minnerly, as he did not record a tackle for loss (TFL) last year. The 5'10, 170-pound Brown put up four tackles and two pass breakups last week.
The corner positions are manned by T.J. Lee III and Ronald Baines. Lee paced the team in interceptions with three last season, but Baines picked off Idaho's quarterback last Saturday. Lee was a starter a season ago, while Baines is stepping up in that role for the first time in 2012.
Minnerly is the only starter in the defensive backfield that stands above 5'10. This group seems like a weakness on the team, and that bodes well for the Cougar passing attack.
Continue reading for previews of the linebackers and defensive line.
The entire starting linebacking corps returns for the Eags in 2012. Don't expect EWU to send a bunch of guys from this group on blitzes or stunts. Linebackers accounted for only 3.5 sacks for Eastern in 2011.
If they do bring pressure for the linebacking spot, it is likely to come from David Gaylord. He isn't a starter, but he did lead the group in sacks with two last season, and sacked the quarterback in the opener against Idaho. If he is on the field, be looking for the Eags to bring extra pressure.
Ronnie Hamlin was the team-leader in tackles last year and did so again against Idaho. His effort against the Vandals earned him Big Sky Defensive player of the week.
This is probably the most important piece of information on Hamlin, from his player page:
During the 2010 season, Hamlin and safety Jeff Minnerly challenged each other to see who could go the longest without cutting their hair. Linebacker Zach Johnson was also in on the wager, but dropped out after EWU won the NCAA Division I title.
No word yet on who won the wager.
Tyler Washburn and sixth-year senior Zach Johnson man the other linebacking spots for EWU. Johnson had six tackles against the Vandals, while Washburn contributed a pass breakup and a fumble recovery.
The front-four appeared to be the strength of the Eastern defense a year ago, but they return just one starter from that 2011 group.
Paul Ena led the team in sacks with 5.5 and tied for the team-lead in TFL with 9. He's prototypical small rush-end size at 6'2, 240.
Starting at end opposite of Ena will be Evan Day. He posted three sacks and 5 TFL in a reserve role in 2011. Day also recorded a sack and QB hurry against Idaho. Like Ena, he is on the smaller side, weighing in at 245 pounds.
The tackle positions are manned by Andru Pulu and Evan Cook at 290 and 280 pounds. Pulu is a transfer from Washington and sat out last season. Cook played sparingly, recording seven tackles.
In passing downs (okay, third and longs) expect to see Jerry Ceja. He was fourth on the team in TFL, despite not starting in 2011. He brought pressure against the Vandals, recording two QB hurries.
With Pulu and Ena, the Eagles do have talent on the defensive line. Fortunately for the Cougs, they don't have the size to push them around. However, if the Eagles have some quickness to go with their lack of size, then they could exploit some of the expanded gaps between the WSU linemen.
This should be a good game for the WSU offense to work out some kinks and gain some confidence. EWU played well against Idaho, but they still are not a good defense, especially in the secondary. Jeff Tuel and the Cougars receiving corps should be able to exploit the Eagles down the field.